Top Five Albums of 2009

The decade comes to an end and I must say I am left somewhat at a loss. The internet has completely removed me from my favorite past time, record shoping. Of the top five listed below, I only own one of these in physical format. Record shops are scarce and overpriced in hopes of staying afloat. Never mind that release dates are often announced before bands have even entered the studio. I know more useless crap about my favorite bands then ever before.

Also, Hip Hop kinda sucks. While there were some bright lights this year by Mos Def and Q-Tip, most of the hip hop I heard was weak sause. The music that I heard and loved this year came from unexpectad places. I heard new music that I wasn’t neccessarily looking for, but the internet did make it a lot easier to explore. It’s hard to say. There are a lot of good albums not even mentioned below. But again, not much in the way of GREAT. We shall see what the next decade has to offer.

My Top Five of 2009

1. Propaghandhi – Supporting Caste
This year’s race for the number one spot was tough and ultimately it was decided by one factor and one factor alone: Propaghandhi fucking RULES live. This is what tipped the decision making here at Franconia Station. It’s been a long time since I saw a band as intense and insane as Propaghandhi. But this is not the only reason why they deserve this distinguished position atop the pile of records. In what seems like another year of mostly okay albums, my attitude towards almost everything I bought was “but it wasn’t as good as Supporting Caste. This is crucial, because there were a lot of insane records this year, and I bought a lot of punk and hardcore music this year, but truly, nothing can touch Propaghandhi.

Aside from just being a punishing 40 minutes of fast as shit metal riffs, militant, homicidal vegan righteousness and a really easy album to listen to, Supporting Caste is just really beautiful at times. The opening track “Night Dreams” has just a very beautiful melodic quality to the vocals that carry some really solemn and yet very touching lyrics. And how much better can you get than a song that pontificates upon political ideology and hokey after an amazing intro of metal thrash the breaks into some of the best sounding guitar chords this side of The Most Secret Method. And of course there is “Human(e) Meat {The Flensing of Sander Kates}” which is essentially the vegan day dream of cooking and eating a former vegetarian who willfully accepts faulty logic that the humane killing of animals for food somehow makes it all okay. And sure Sander Kates may be an AIDS advocate and die titian, but there is nothing unjustifiable about Propaghandhi’s attack. After all, we have to review our dominion as the supposed top of the food chain. This song had a direct impact on me becoming vegan this year. Propaghandhi are that good.

Which is another thing about this album, it engages and challenges you. Many people would probably consider Propaghandhi didactic and preachy (or just self righteous and full of shit) but in their despair, anger and frustration is compassion and love. These decisions aren’t made all willy nilly. These ideas are not the constructs of some psychobabble political machine. These are just four hokey loving Canucks who also happen to love Thrash Metal and want to preserve this world that has given them both of these things.

Their political approach isn’t for everyone, but they aren’t backing down. After nearly twenty years of just getting better and better, Propaghandhi delivers a career worthy album. Sure, the grander music world doesn’t care. But if you can’t see the finesse and musical genius in this band then frankly, as far as I am concerned you don’t know shit about music. If you refuse to be challenged by your art then you’re just fucked. I tend to say this every year, but again I am presented with an album that speaks to me musically and challenges me personally. I can’t help but think that Supporting Caste has made me a better human being.

2. xx – The xx
When I first heard this band, I really tried hard not to like them. I knew they were going to be the buzz band of the year and that fuck heads with ironic mustaches and fancy hats, donning fucky skinny jeans would be blogging about them from their iPhones. But fuck man if xx didn’t just blow me over. At first listen I was reminded of when I was introduced to Unrest. There was something so subtle about this band. It’s the power of hushed silences that permeate a room and the xx say more in the absence of space then most bands say filling every inch of the room with whatever cacophony they can throw at the listener.

And fuck me if these little twenty year old bastards aren’t some of the most sexual tension expressing fuckers I have ever heard. Again, I go back to Unrest comparisons, because a band hasn’t made sexual tension and straight up fucking seem so innocent and so fun too. These English brats are at that age where they are old enough to have had their hearts broken, but horny enough to know that getting it on is fun, the emotional consequences be damned. By the time we file in for the closing song “Stars” your pretty breathless and so what does singer Oliver Sim whisper to you with his gravely, off key voice? “I can give it up on the first date”. I mean WHAT THE FUCK? Seriously? You spend the previous nine songs professing love, dabbling in obsession, disregarding heartache and running back to jilting lovers all to end the album with a song about being a horny slut? I’m too old for this shit! But damn if it isn’t beautiful.

To make matters worse, this is a debut album. If the hype machine doesn’t kill them, this minimalist love pop fiasco only has upwards to go. Because as good as The xx is, what makes it great is the future possibilities. This is a debut album made by some kids only at the beginning of their unsure experimentation and obsession. What happens when they actually know what they’re fucking doing? I can’t wait to see personally.

The band is already down a member after constant touring. But there recent show in DC showed me that they are getting restless and already playing with the foundation of what they laid down. There is a bit more confidence in the xx and perhaps they are playing it safe by working this album to death by staying on the road constantly. By the time they get done they will be sick to death of it and ready to explore a very available pallet in which they already have definitive command over. This band makes me fucking sick how good they are.

3. Pissed Jeans – King of Jeans

In the movie This is Spinal Tap one of the reviews read by Martin DeBergi describes the bands music as “treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality”. And while this is meant to be a joke about music that is itself a joke, I can’t help but think it fits Pissed Jeans perfectly. After all the protagonists of singer Matt Korvette’s tortured vocal flailings all seem socially undeveloped. I imagine a sea of fat, slovenly gamer geeks, lanky music dorks or just oddly bespectacled man with greasy hair rocking back and forth in their chairs. It’d be sad if it wasn’t so funny. It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. But somehow, even in their reclusive defense stance, these fringe members of society seem to be getting by. There is a lot to be said about perseverance in the face of adversity. Especially when the establishment is just as fucked and cock-eyed as the people they cast judgment upon.

This record gets a visceral reaction out of me, and yet I am able to transform those feelings into words so easily. When I wrote about this record back in August, I couldn’t think of a time I had more fun listening to and waxing on about an album. Because of this, Pissed Jeans are totally from their own planet, in a sense imbibing the same screwed up hopelessness of the stories they tell and yet fashioning on in spite of what the larger community has to say about them.

Pissed Jeans are a love them or hate them kind of band. Invoking some of the greatest bands to come ahead of them and yet existing in such a unique sonic natural disaster. The comparisons to Black Flag and The Jesus Lizard are not inaccurate and as a listener and critic, totally welcomed, because those bands are fucking amazing. That anyone even wants to touch upon either of those intensely uncomfortable and sacred cannons is actually a relief as year after year music gets safer and more boring. Pissed Jeans have dirty faces and slobber at your feat. While the music and lyrics are creepy, their perversion is not derived from cynicism or sinister angles. Instead they undulate like an unruly child too emotionally immature to express themselves constructively but with the complete understanding that what they are doing is completely infantile.

4. The Twilight Sad – Forget about the Night
For me this record represents the interesting state of music. There is no doubt that this is a very Scottish album. It certainly is the vocal inflections of lead singer James Graham that make it such. The music itself owes a lot to the English dream pop and noise rock, equal parts The Smiths and My Bloody Valentine. But The Twilight Sad emerge from what appear to be obvious influences with a sound that is very distinctive. Much the way Ian Brown’s voice speaks the streets of Manchester, somehow James Graham elicits the senses to invoke Glasgow, Scotland. I’ve never been there, but I feel like I know the city just a little bit better now.

What I love about Forget the Night is how massive it sounds. The instruments are so distinct, separate from each other and yet they are cohesive and make such a big fucking sound. It’s the kind of record that overcomes you and your senses. And rock music has a hard time doing that. After all, there is so much of it, and the old tricks just seem to get recycled. And this too separates The Twilight Sad from all the rest, they don’t have any tricks up there sleeves. The music is sincere, almost dryly so. It’s evocative of something very serious, often feeling like it’s directed to the bottom of a pint glass in some very dark bar where there aren’t many patrons, even though it’s Friday night and every one on the bar stools are relatively young.

This is a record that is more than just sound, it’s feeling. You can feel the wetness and rain falling on your shoulders and the guitars shimmer brightly from the speakers. The drums, they rumble like a storm, the bass the thunder that shakes the windows. And back to Graham’s voice, it’s a wind that blows fervently, but is none the less gentle.

Honestly and truly I am surprised at how much I love this record, because it is so straight forward. But this is music made for the sake of making music, passionately and fully. There are not a lot of bands like this, and that it came unexpectedly was quite a treat. It has also peaked my interest in what else is going on over the pond on that small island. My record collection’s foreign entries are dominated by England’s best and have far over shadowed this great Scottish city. But The Twilight Sad has changed all of that. Glasgow is the place to be, Forget about the Night makes that crystal clear.

5. Russian Circles – Geneva
I have never, ever been a fan of instrumental music. And as a music geek I have always found this disheartening in myself. I truly can not get into Jazz music because the human voice is my favorite instrument of choice. I feel that way because the human voice is limitless. Instrumental music always feels like it hits a glass ceiling. However Russian Circles have transcended that and there second album Geneva more than put a wrench in my musical world view.

From a strictly aesthetic presentation Geneva has all the right things. In this day and age, where everyone has a guitar, great guitar work is a must. Guitarist Mike Sullivan, does not disappoint. While Russian Circles over all gives nods to Isis and Neurosis, Sullivan’s playing at times reminds me of the masterful work of Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo. In fact, much of the time I feel like he is bringing the best of Ranaldo and his sidekick Thurston Moore together in one package. So already we have a band that can bring together the power of epic metal bands and the sonic clusterfuck of indie rocks greatest music makers.

In fact drummer Dave Turncrantz approach and finesse reminds me of Sonic Youth’s skinsman Steve Shelly on a little album called Daydream Nation. This band is eager to rock the fuck out, but they understand so clearly the subtlety of what makes a song. They are powerful and mighty, the gut punching bass lines of Brian Cook won’t allow you to forget that, but Russian Circles aren’t merely plowing the audience over with volume. They are constructing pieces of music. Not just songs, but what feel like very meticulous compositions.

And yet there is so much room that Russian Circles are exploring this time out. To much surprise they employed the use of violin on several tracks on the album. And while the placement of those songs leaves something to be desired, it indicates that this band is thinking about the music, not just bashing it out in a room together. The first ten minutes of the album seem to fly by, and the start of “Melee” suggests more of the same. But rather then swipe at the jugular, Russian Circles steps back and tugs at the heart strings, pushing and twisting the muscle to it’s will.

The best thing a musician can do is know their instrument intimately. Geneva is sure proof that the members of Russian Circles are quite close to their chosen tool. Though it probably is a band made up of virtuosos, they are master craftsman that understand very clearly what they want to communicate and each person’s role in that process. They very rarely step on each other’s toes, and often seem to each be in there own world, but the voices emerging from the speakers is powerful, subtle, beautiful and absolutely intense.

Other Considerations
Dalek – Gutter Tactics
Dalek offer the most intense version of hip hop the world has to offer. Closer to The Twilight Sad then they are to Wu-Tang, none the less they put out an amazing album once again. Sadly once again it is terribly overlooked. But there is no justice in this world so long as Dalek is terrifying hip-hop. With the amount of weak ass, cry into your shoulders bullshit mainstream hip-hop offered us this year, Dalek is the antidote to that blues jam.

Dead Friends – S/T
Gainesville, FL is a magical place, where magical men with beards grab fucked up, watter logged guitars and make the most regional rock sound of the decade. Dead Friends is no exception, but they are fucking awesome. Short songs, covered in layers of dirty Nirvana songs and buzzing Jesus Lizard tunes, Dead Friends teaches some old dogs new tricks.

Ida Maria – Fortress Round My Heart
Every song on this album had the potential to be a radio hit, and across the Atlantic I believe this Norwegian rookie made quite a splash. She didn’t do to bad over here either. Surely her Scandinavian sensibilities were a bit too odd for the larger public at first taste, but there is no denying this infectious pop-rock music. Though as an album, the songs don’t totally mesh, but the beauty of Ida Maria is that she has such a command over each song that they are distinctly hers. It’s too bad the industry is the way it is these days, because ten years ago, Ida Maria would have been one of the biggest waves in the ocean. She’s under the radar now, but I suspect she will get better with time.

Bomb the Music Industry – Scrambles
Bomb the Music Industry are a hyperactive mess, and Scrambles is the most indicative of this. Jeff Rosenstock shoves a lot of lyrics into three minute songs, so much so that it’s hard sometimes to keep up, but there is no denying how energetic this band is. You can’t listen to Scrambles and not want to just stage dive off the hood of your car. Don’t do it though, there is no one around you in the parking lot and everyone will just look at you like an idiot while you bleed from the skull fracture.

Paint It Black – Surrender/Amnesia
If Paint it Black had packaged the nine songs that make up these two EP’s together they easily would have found there way into my top five this year. But sequencing is such an issue with albums, and having to build my own is frustrating as all hell. However, this is the best music this band has ever produced. Gone are the days of trying to prove to the old school that the new school is worthy. Closer to 40 then 15, Dan Yemin has harnessed this band into a full on machine and proven that hardcore has no age limits. And while it is loud and fast, I truly believe that Yemin and company make music that can reach beyond the hardcore/punk rock underground ghetto. They may not do it now, but history will tell.

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One thought on “Top Five Albums of 2009

  1. Based on your descriptions I picked up the Twilight Sad and Russian Circles albums, and dig them both. A lot of reviewers get so caught up in pretentious descriptions of bands' styles and working in every obscure reference to prove their street credit that they lose accuracy. You were right on the money (also based on your description I'm confident I wouldn't like Propaghandhi.) I'd also recently picked up the Xx album based on a song of theirs I heard on the NPR show "Sound Opinions" during their year-end recap. While I was at the store I also got an album by a group called Super Furry Animals, but that's more because I'm a moron (actually, the album's decent; but I really ought to stop buying CDs based purely on the cover art/name of band.)

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